Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Isabel Paterson

I have become extremely interested of late in Isabel Paterson. Paterson is one of founders of modern American libertarianism. A prominent literary critic who used weekly book review column in the New York Herald Tribune "Books" supplement to take on the status quo, she was a contemporary of H.L. Mencken and Rose Wilder Lane, editor of humorist Will Cuppy, mentor to Ayn Rand and correspondent to Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley. She is unfortunately somewhat forgotten today. Unlike her contemporaries, she was not a joiner -- Rand had her Objectivist movement while Lane was active at the libertarian Freedom School. Paterson simply had her column. Hence, she did not leave behind a phalanx of disciples to popularize her work.

Besides being a critic she also was a writer herself. Her sole nonfiction book, "The God of the Machine" was in some ways the starting point for modern American libertarianism. Ayn Rand told Paterson that the book "does for capitalism what Das Kapital does for the Reds and what the Bible did for Christianity." Paterson also wrote historical novels where kings were the villains and merchants the heroes.

To Paterson, society was simply the transmitter of energy -- the energy of commerce and creativity. Many things, overburdening government, grasping nobles, a society based on status, central planning, Bolshevism, or fascism, were items that slowed down the transmission of energy. Paterson is of interest to me because she did not see liberty as being in opposition to faith. In fact, she felt quite the opposite -- that Christianity helped to set free the energies of Europe. While recognizing that Europe in the Middle Ages was a status bound society based on serfdom, she believed that Christian philosophy was one of the basis for freedom (Paterson was not a Christian herself, but is rather better considered a Deist).

Unfortunately, the only works of Paterson that seem to be in print are "The God of the Machine" and one of her later experimental novels. Her Tribune columns and her early novels are hard to find. In addition, there is an excellent biography of her, "The Woman and the Dynamo" by Steven Cox. Hopefully, a few of her earlier novels might come back into print.

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